Thursday, November 23, 2006

Body count redux

When General William Westmoreland ("Generally Drifty", as he was known by his staff behind his back) was in charge of the Vietnam thing, he or one of his subordinates regularly hosted at MACV headquarters what came to be known as "The Five O'Clock Follies", in which an attempt would be made to spin the current military situation to an increasingly skeptical press.

One of the many peculiar features of those press conferences was the body count briefing. The body count was the way enemy and friendly casualties were toted up and compared to show that we were winning the war.

The comparison was always impressive, something like 10 to a 100 enemy kills for each friendly death, pretty consistently. Combine that with the fact that we never lost a major battle (quite true), then the conclusion that "we must be winning" should have been obvious to press and public alike. Or so reasoned the General and his bosses back in Washington.

Behind closed doors, however, what increasingly befuddled the leadership was that although all the numbers were on their side, they were obviously not winning the war. The solution they kept coming up with was "more of the same".

Eventually, what the body count comparisons served to do was publicize the staggering number of U.S. and Vietnamese combat deaths and injuries until a disgusted and disillusioned American public began marching and rioting against the war.

Fast forward.

I can't find a reference for this, but I believe at some point a Pentagon spokesman told the press that there would be no official comparisons of U.S. casualties to enemy casualties in Iraq. No "body count briefings", in other words. The military had learned at least this one small lesson from Vietnam.

However, to put it in the Rumsfeld vernacular, this particular metric is one that would naturally be consulted internally as an important measure of success or failure and is implicit in most of the official statements released and most of the military strategies advanced. Obviously, as in Vietnam, if we kill more of them than we lose on our side, we must be winning. If we aren't winning, then we must need more of the same.

This is important because it illustrates a very basic and neatly schizophrenic misunderstanding on the part of both our military and political leadership, from Vietnam to the present, as to how victory in war is achieved.

While our leaders tell us on the one hand that the only way the enemy can win is by us giving up -- "cut and run"; on the other hand, they tell us that the only way we can win is by killing as many of the enemy as possible -- "staying the course". Anyone see the disconnect here? Why are they applying different tests for winning to the opposing sides?

In The Art of War by 6th century BC Chinese general Sun Tzu, he famously remarks:

The acme of excellence belongs not to the one who fights and wins every battle but to the one who conquers without even waging a war.

Along the same lines, Prussian military theorist Carl von Clausewitz advised:

The aim of a nation in war is to subdue the enemy's will to resist, with the least possible human and economic loss itself . . . our goal in war can only be attained by the subjugation of the opposing will . . .

various sources, Google Clausewitz

In other words, our focus and measure of winning in Iraq should be how effectively we are eroding the enemy's will, not by how many enemy are captured or killed, not by juggling the number of boots on the ground, not by moving troops around on virtual maps, not by embedding advisers in Iraqi units, not by standing up Iraqi units so we can stand down, not by begging Syria and Iran to bail us out, and not by pressuring the Iraqi government to do anything. All that is irrelevant blather. Unfortunately, our leaders genuinely don't seem to understand this and on the evidence of the last 40 years, never will.

That is why, it seems to me, the only sensible solution is to say, to hell with it, and remove our troops now. Digg Stumble Upon Toolbar propeller Furl

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